Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Edge of Time

The basics of aging paper are absurdly simple- use tea to stain the fibers and allow the sheet to dry. Like many others, I learned that method in grade school and have been using it with minor variations for decades. It's quick, it's easy, and it does a reasonably good job of reproducing the browning and oxidation of old paper.

With some minor tweaks tea staining can also recreate the darkened edges found in old documents. While your sheet is still damp simply sponge more tea along the edges, allowing the paper fibers to soak up more of the tannic acid in the solution. In essence you're accelerating the natural process of wicking that causes the edge discoloration/oxidation in real fiber papers and parchments.

When trying to create the look of something truly old, like an ancient scroll, you also need to create the ragged edge produced when tiny fragments of paper break off over time. In the past I've used a deckling blade to produce that effect, but I think I've stumbled on a better method.

Previously, I would rip the paper along the deckling blade to get a rough edge and then begin the staining process. Now I stain the paper, wait until it's almost dry, and then use the sharpened end of a bamboo skewer to flake off bits of paper. Just press the point of the bamboo into the edge of the paper and tear off small pieces using a flicking motion. It sounds tedious, but once you get the hand motion down the process goes quickly.

Here's a look at the results using a standard sheet of printer paper. Just click through for a higher resolution version.

The skewer technique produced a wonderful worn edge, and the exposed fibers soaked up another sponging of tea to create the darkened oxidation border of old paper. Here's a closer look.

I experimented with some internal wear and the results were generally good. The only thing I wasn't happy with was the paper bunching seen along the edges of the wear spots, particularly the one slightly left of center. The fix for that is easy- once you've made your initial tear use the skewer tip to rip small flakes toward the center of the hole instead of ripping outward.

This all might seem a bit picayune, but it's the little details like this that help make a convincing prop. Live action props are the most difficult kind to create, more so than anything on stage or film, since they're subjected to minute, detailed examination. Paying attention to the edge treatment not only produces something that looks more realistic, but feels more realistic.


affliction said...

Thanks for sharing your forbidden knowledge with us. Propnomicon is shifting the world towards the subtle, rather than crispy burned edged paper!

R.S. Bohn said...

I have a ton of bamboo skewers -- I can't wait to try this. Thanks.

I use tea, but I'll also use instant coffee for the darker edges. A spoonful of Folgers and just a bit of hot water, not a whole cup. Experiment, because it can be pretty dark.

LoneIslander said...

We did stuff like this before for some of my brothers projects.

Propnomicon said...

@ affliction

This is pretty damn random, but you know where the whole "old maps and documents have burned edges" thing comes from?

The Boy Scouts.

It was one of the recommended techniques for making an aged map for a troop treasure hunt back in the 60s. It *kinda* recreates the look of oxidized edges, but I think the real reason it became popular is that it involved using fire. If there's one thing Boy Scouts love, and I say this as a former scout, it's fire.

@ R.S. Bohn

My Significant Other turned me on to the myriad of uses for bamboo skewers. At a $1 for 100 they're easily the most cost effective tool I own.

I've tried instant coffee as a stain, but I don't like the lingering smell it produces.


I wish I'd fumbled my way into discovering it a lot sooner.

retromancy said...

This is great thanks - just about to "age" some paper for an illo so I think I'll try your technique

Anonymous said...

Very useful. I've got a project in mind where I'll need old-looking documents. But I've been looking for old documents for inspiration in how they looked typographically. How did birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, rental agreements, etc look in 1910? 1860? 1710?

Does anyone know of a good place or source of old documents that are viewable? Or of research tips that might help at the library?

Matt Rambles said...

Thanks for your great work on paper aging. I find the tea treatment very useful though in the past I found the results a bit disappointing. I have since created my own secret technique which I will share. Use a flat cookie sheet submerge your paper in tea solution. In addition and coffee grounds and swish them around or sprinkle them in places you want them. By raising and lowering you paper you can create edges that are darker than the interior of the paper. This closer resembles the aged paper I have found in real life. Just enough tea to cover only just a bit above the paper surface. Now place entire set up in oven about 350 degrees F. about a half hour should do checking periodically.Note try what works best for you. Don't want to start any fires. When your sheet is 95% dry remove and add additional if any aging techniques. I did this on ordinary print paper with the information I wanted printed on it before dying. It got nice results and was able to age the text a bit without the ink smearing, with a paper towel being gently dragged and brushed accrossed the text. Hope you try this good luck and have fun. Sorry no pics to add but I loved the results I got with my technique the coffee gave it kind of moldy type spots to the paper adding one more element to my prop making arsenal.